Looking Back

‘Buwisit,’ ‘pakyaw’–Hokkien in our language

/ 05:06 AM January 22, 2020

Filipinos are often surprised to learn that tempura, the prawn or vegetable deep-fried in batter they associate with Japanese cuisine, is actually Portuguese. It is not well known that the Japanese did not have deep-fried food until the Portuguese introduced it to Japan in the 16th century. In a similar way, Filipinos presume that the common kamote (Ipomoea batatas or sweet potato); sayote (Sechium edule or mirliton squash); achuete (Bixa Orellana or annatto); and zapote (Casimiroa edulis or Mexican apple) are indigenous. These plants that end with “te” were known in Nahuatl as camotli, chayohtli, achiote and cochitzapotl, respectively. All were introduced to the islands from Mexico in the years of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade.Globalization may be a contemporary word, but it has been around since the Old World, as seen by Europe, encountered the New World during the historical period we know as the “Age of Exploration.” To be politically correct, we don’t use “Age of Discovery” in the classroom anymore.

Globalization came to mind as I walked around Chinatown twice last week. Peeking in stores and restaurants made me realize that the Chinese have a longer and deeper influence on Philippine life and history than we would want to believe. It is clear in Hokkien Chinese words in our language, like buwisit (bad luck that comes from “wisit” or lucky); suya (which originally referred to “misfortune,” but we understand as “disgust”); katay (to butcher); ate (elder sister); siokoy (originally referred to a water ghost, but to Filipinos became a “merman,” the opposite of a mermaid); hukbo (originally was hok-bu [service] but we understand as “army”). Then there is suwitik, which I always believed to be rooted in Jesuitic or Heswitik, but is a Hokkien word referring to revenge, an enemy, and being artful or sly—all things we can also associate with Jesuits in our history.Studies by linguists estimate that 42 percent of Tagalog words are loaned from other languages, and this can be broken down to: 33 percent Spanish, 3 percent Hokkien Chinese, 4 percent Malay, and 2 percent English, Sanskrit and Arabic. After reading Spanish period missionary vocabularies from the 16th to the 19th centuries, I once considered a career in linguistics, only to be repelled by academic linguistic literature with its diagrams and symbols that made my nose bleed. Linguistics had become dehumanized into texts similar to high school algebra. Fortunately, there are some lucid articles like Gloria Chan Yap’s “Chinese loan words in Tagalog” (Studies in Philippine Linguistics, 1977), which deepened my recent Chinatown visits that were associated with food: hopia, tikoy, siopao, siomai, pancit, mami, lomi, lumpia and dikiam.


I didn’t know two words in commercial relations are rooted in Hokkien: pakyaw, which we understand as wholesale buying, originally meant to submit things by the bundle; and suki, or a longstanding customer or client, in its original Hokkien meant an important customer or VIP. I also rediscovered Hokkien in a supermarket meat section the other day: goto (ox tripe); kamto (meat-like part from the entrails of ox commonly used in kare-kare); kasim (back portion of pig); kinse (not Spanish for fifteen but Chinese for the foreshank of a cow used in soup); liempo (stomach part of pig); ulikba (the medicinal black chicken I only find in Carvajal Street in Binondo, with white feathers but its meat is black); and, last but not least, suwahe (sand shrimp) and hebi (small dried shrimp).When abroad, my introduction to the country comes from a visit to a wet market or the supermarket closest to my hotel. Simply looking at a price tag beside an apple or a chicken teaches me the local words for these items without resorting to a dictionary or Google. Comparing prices with those in Manila also gives me an idea of the value of the local currency and a sense of the people’s cost of living. My Chinatown visit made me see the supermarket vegetable section with new, perhaps chinky, eyes: bataw (climbing plant with edible pods); kintsay (celery); kutsay (green leek); petsay (Chinese white cabbage); sitaw (string beans); toge (bean sprout); upo (gourd); utaw (soy bean); and wansuy (originally “yansoy” or coriander) are not Tagalog but Hokkien words. I should thank Ivan Man Dy for encouraging me to revisit Chinatown and discover my Chinese roots in time for Chinese New Year.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: “Age of Exploration", Chinese, Filipino language, Hokkien
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